The share of U.S. workers who belong to a union has fallen by about half since 1983, when 20% of American workers were union members. But there has been a renewed interest in organized labor in the last few years. In fact, as of late 2021 pro-union sentiment in the U.S. rose to 68%—the highest it’s been since 1965.
There are a lot of reasons why organized labor is having a moment right now: COVID-19 highlighted the unreasonable working conditions that many employees who were deemed “essential” were enduring. And amid the Great Resignation of the last two years, employees started reclaiming power by demanding better wages, safer working conditions, increased benefits—as well as pay equity, and a commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion.
On the latest episode of The New Way We Work, I spoke with Kim Kelly, author of Fight Like Hell: The Untold History of American Labor.
Kelly focuses on the stories of marginalized groups in all industries and throughout every era of organized labor’s history. “There have always been marginalized people involved in labor,” she says. “We’ve always been part of the working class, whether or not we’ve been given top billing in mainstream understandings or discussions of labor.”
She pointed out that many people have an antiquated vision of what a union employee is and that unions have been a part of many industries for years. There has, however, been a new interest in organized labor within knowledge workers in tech and media in particular. “People are becoming more cognizant that even if you have a ‘cool job’ or a ‘good job,’ it’s still a job, and a lot of time, having a job sucks,” she says. “You probably still have a boss that isn’t treating you well, or your paycheck is smaller than it should be, or there’s other workplace issues that you’re having to deal with. And a union really is the only mechanism for workers to actually make material change in their workplace when they work collectively.”
Kelly points, too, to the impact that the pandemic has had on the renewed interest in organized labor. In a tight labor market, employees are reclaiming their power, from service and retail workers demanding better pay, to those who don’t want to be told to return to an office and want to maintain the flexibility that they gained during the pandemic.
While Kelly pointed to some of the more high-profile and contentious battles between management and employees, like those at Amazon, an organized workforce doesn’t have to be at odds with management. For managers, a labor union can not only attract future employees, but be the key to retaining your best talent. Working together with employees to make sure that they get a contract that’s fair to everybody and includes the things that they have highlighted are the most important to them can be the best defense against the Great Resignation. Or, as Kelly advises, “just have their backs and make them understand that ‘I’m on your side. Even if I can’t fight with you in the same way, I got you, this is cool. I believe that you deserve [what you are asking for], I believe that you deserve to organize.'”
For more on the role of marginalized groups in organized labor, how unions can help advance DEI goals, why Gen Z is all in on organized labor, and advice for both employees and managers, listen to the full episode.
Editor’s Note: Fast Company and parent company Mansueto Ventures are represented by Writers Guild of America East.